Moulding the nation through community associations

by Dr Martin Jagdeo Boodhoo
Guyana Chronicle
May 6, 1999

OUR history, not unlike that of many other developing countries, has endowed us with a system of paternalism in which citizens expect the government and employers such as the sugar and bauxite companies, to take care of their needs and even their personal welfare. This trend resulted in limited opportunities for people participation in socio-economic development, especially in the colonial period.

In this Viewpoint, I wish to emphasise that need for more community involvement in the process of moulding our nation, moreso in the light of the anti-social, confrontational and aggressive behaviour being experienced in our society.

Guyana has witnessed the rise and fall of community development organisations over the last 50 years. In the 1940's and 50's, there was an expansion of community associations in such areas as Youth Clubs, Scouting, Women's Institutes and Sports' Clubs with attendant facilities in the villages, sugar estates as well as industrial and commercial centres throughout our country.

However, it was sad to witness the decline in social organisations and services over the last 30 years or so.

Community associations are seedbeds for training young people in social skills, leadership qualities as well as the inculcation of attitudes and values such as courtesy, fair play, mutual respect, tolerance and accountability. These associations have also proven to be useful in nurturing relationships between younger and older citizens in the planning and implementation of community projects. Just in the same way as basic education is essential, the informal blending of socially acceptable standards of behaviour is necessary for a stable, just and progressive society.

Young people and those not-so-young have little or no facilities where they could meet and develop their skills and knowledge, through social organisations. Instead they play on the streets, seek recreation through devious means and the end result is that moral standards leave much to be desired, social interactions tend to be impolite and aggressive, with the attendant `cuss words' in discussions. Without doubt, there is need for a re-awakening, possibly soul-searching, if we are to have a sane, peaceful and civil society which is a fundamental pre-requisite for socio-economic progress.

Community Development Organisations in the rural and hinterland areas can also be seen as a decentralised vehicle for training future leaders. They provide opportunities for "power sharing" through the election of their officers which is a mechanism for "rotating" responsibilities. The members especially those elected to office, learn that with every right or privilege, there is a corresponding responsibility or list of duties. Within such a framework, the team spirit is fostered and we learn to help each other to achieve our agreed targets and goals.

In this regard, let me put in a plea to the Constitutional Reform Commission for a democratic and effective decentralised regional system in which citizens would directly choose their representatives who would be accountable to the electors, through the First-Past-the-Post electoral system. A restructured regional and local government system would provide a uniform framework for the allocation of resources and enhance popular participation for higher levels of efficiency in the use of available resources. Furthermore, it would also act as a "countervailing buffer" to autocracy, as experience has shown in many countries.

There is abundant evidence to support the view that popular participation, through community associations, along with an effective decentralised system of governance, can better sustain socio-economic development and generate wider spin-off benefits. Our religious, Women's, Youth and Scout organisations; Rotary, Lions and Sports' Clubs; Parent-Teachers' Associations, Policing Groups and Community Peace Councils; Self-Help, Co-operative and Friendly Societies must be commended for their efforts in enhancing social, moral and professional standards. Finally, let me emphasise that each of us has a responsibility to make our contribution in the moulding of a better Guyana, to face the challenges of the new millennium.